We Canadians recoiled from the series of events that swamped Pennsylvania State University in perhaps the most offensive scandal in the history of big-time university sport in the United States. The revelation that an assistant football coach at one of the storied athletic programs in the U.S. had committed several sexual acts against young boys in a university shower-room was scarcely believable. Even worse, the response of university authorities from President Graham Spanier to the immortal coach, Joe Paterno, made it clear that many insiders knew about the activities and proclivities of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which continued for 15 years, and ignored them.
In Canada, few if any sports teams approach the glory of Penn State football. The coach was god-like, the players at Penn State walked the campus as demigods, and home games brought out students and alumni across generations the way Mecca attracts Moslems and the Pope’s masses in St. Peter’s Square draws Catholics. Some faculty – who clung to the belief that Penn State was an institution of higher learning – averted their gaze. Others willingly endorsed that culture and accepted the fruits of that culture.
There is some good news here for Canadian universities, reflecting the different realities that separate us from our American neighbours. A different sport culture here keeps institutions at a point where most big-time U.S. football and basketball programs were before the advent of network and cable TV money, endorsements and athletic scholarships. Although some basketball programs in Canada are top-notch and although football programs at the University of Regina and Université Laval enjoy significant private financial support, still, academics still prevail over athletics. Faculties and students still control intercollegiate athletics at most Canadian universities.
For another thing, where would the money to fund big athletics programs come from? Markets in Canada are too small to promote the behemoth sport factories that allow American coaches to make more money and wield more power than university presidents and foster situations that allow players to cross too many legal and ethical lines.
Canadian scholars like Varda Burstyn, Bruce Kidd, Laura Robinson, and Brian Pronger have shown that American college sport promote not only spirit and courage but also a pathological hyper-masculinity that often finds outlets in problematic ways. In no other venue is “homosociality” so accepted. Homosociality is, in essence, the process by which athletes bond on and around fields of battle. Burstyn, in her book The Rites of Men, underlines several pathologies that can accompany athletic camaraderie, on and off the field. Pronger probes the sexual interstices that provide an often unspoken homoeroticism which borders on, but need not encompass homosexuality. Indeed, the homosocial environment of sport generally abhors homosexuality in favour of outward toughness and the demonstration of power. Such behaviour takes form in hockey fights, dirty hits on the football field, and numerous other situations where male force seeks to dominate. It can become a breeding ground for misogyny, as Frank Costigliola demonstrated in his recent Cold War study while assessing Soviet and American diplomats and their sometimes orgiastic social life in Moscow during the 1930s; it can also encompass pedophilia.
Simply because our college athletics are not as important or competitive as in the U.S., Canadians should not be complacent. Pedophilia is an atrocity that has happened here, there, and everywhere. Transgressions like Sandusky’s have occurred in myriad cultural sites where adults in positions of power oversee children and adolescents without supervisory accountability. We need only consult our sordid history of lives ruined in our country’s aboriginal residential schools, hierarchical cover-ups involving the Catholic Church, and assaults by junior hockey coaches, choir-masters, scout leaders, and other adults in youth sport and activities. We need to see our own complicity in all of this.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has handed Penn State a $60 million fine; a four-year ban on bowl games; and the order to vacate all football victories back to 1998. Whether the death penalty for football would provide a more apt punishment remains moot. The report on the scandal by independent counsel Louis J. Freeh said that its “most saddening finding … is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” The cover-up at Penn State will resonate in law courts for years to come as witnesses recount the tragic story. But there is a lesson for all of us here. We must reject once and for all what psychologists deem the bystander effect, which makes it hard for people to intervene as good Samaritans, or as any kind of Samaritan at all.
Geoff Smith is professor emeritus at Queen’s University. He taught courses in history, sport sociology, and health studies. He also played and coached basketball for many years.